Sunday, November 22, 2009

Irish Whistle Update

A New Way to Play

I'm awful at memorizing piano music.  I don't like doing it, and it takes me forever.  I'm also pretty bad at memorizing lyrics, but vocal melodies (or pitches, in the case of singing harmonies in a choral work) are fairly easy - I learn them, and pretty soon, they're just embedded in my subconscious.  With the whistle, I'm starting to experience this deeply-learned phenomenon on an instrument for the first time. 

At O'Flaherty, it was made quite clear that the primary way tunes are learned is by ear, so I've made some effort to learn them that way.  I've used written music to assist in learning most of the tunes I know so far, but I've endeavored to learn by ear as much as possible.  Now, I'm having the novel experience of finding it easier to play some tunes purely from memory, with the music actually distracting me when I'm looking at.  Though I sometimes don't know where my fingers should be headed next, I can "hear" the melody in my memory, and the fingers just make that melody happen.  I'm sure, at some level, this is what happens when I play something on the piano repeatedly and feel like I "know" it, but the progress is so swift in this case (perhaps because harmonies aren't there to complicate the issue) that it feels like a completely different phenomenon.

The Austin Celtic Festival - Joanie Madden Workshop

I'm writing this nearly two weeks after the event, so the details are already hazy, but better late than never.  There were in the range of ten to fifteen people at the workshop, so it was fairly personal.  Joanie has an enormous personality, and a bit of a Brooklyn accent (which seems a bit incongrous for an All-Ireland champion).  From the moment she entered the tent, all attention was unequivically on her, and not due to star power - Joanie just exudes charisma and competence.  She rolled out her nigh-legendary collection and told a couple of short stories, including how she first met Pat O'Riordan (who's early playing failed to impress Joanie, but whose whistle-making was a different matter), and how she drove over her previous whistle collection.  She also indulged us with a couple of tunes at the beginning and end of the workshop.  Most of the session was spent learning an Air and a Reel, replete with Joanie's ornamentation.  What I personally took away was a better understanding of how to execute slides (push the finger "toward" the whistle and up) and vibrato*.  I asked Joanie whether you had to vary the way you executed ornaments on a low whistle, referring to "piper's grip" in the question, and she didn't know that term - there's still a lot of regional culture to this, I guess.  I walked away with an autographed CD booklet and a photo - an hour and a half VERY well spent.

* Varies from note to note, but usually by trilling a half-hole, two holes down from the bottom hole you're currently fingering - for high D, you trill the entire top hole, and for E, you trill the bottom hole, on a quarter-hole or less)

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